I meant to report back from the “Tribes or Causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” session at the Fabian conference last week but, as you may have noticed, I’m not exactly blog-heavy at the moment and time has moved on.
It left me in two minds. On the one hand, a clear consensus for political reform emerged on the platform. All four speakers (which in addition to Evan Harris included David Babbs from 38 Degrees, Will Straw from Left Foot Forward and Jessica Asato from Progress) seemed to agree on the need for a more proportional voting system (note: not AV), the Wright Commission proposals and the importance of internal party democracy. On the other hand, it is fairly safe to say that this is not only not a consensus position within Labour itself, but in all three cases is a position that is being actively opposed by the Labour Party at the most senior level at the moment (in the case of the Wright Commission proposals, if I hear Harriet Harman coming up with yet another weasily formulation for why she can’t simply say if she supports them or not, I may have to start causing somebody grevious bodily harm).
And this, in a nutshell, is why Labour supporters can’t and won’t get the Lib Dems to come out and announce their intention to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament*. The fact that Nick Clegg won’t say this causes a lot of Labourites much consternation. James Macintyre, who asked Evan a particularly sappy question about equidistance at the Fabian conference, has written about this in the New Statesman this week, suggesting there is something of a split amongst senior Lib Dem figures on the topic. Over at Tribune, Ian Hernon prefers to simply heap ordure on Clegg.
The simplistic analysis, as advanced by Darrell Goodliffe (who has recently defected from the Lib Dems to Labour), is that Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.
Yet, while this is bandied about as a veritable smoking gun on a proverbial grassy knoll, and while I am not exactly known to be Clegg’s most uncritical of friends, I just don’t see it. James MacIntyre is simply talking balls to suggest that the by adopting this stance, Clegg is pretending the Lib Dems do not have more in common with Labour than the Tories. Clegg himself could not have been clearer in his Demos pamphlet last year when he stated that Labour were rivals whilst the Tories were the traditional foe. The Lib Dems haven’t had a policy of “equidistance” since the mid-nineties. And note that Clegg has very carefully stated that the party with the biggest mandate only has dibs on the right to seek to govern. That is a very qualified statement. It doesn’t commit the Lib Dems to doing anything other than to try to advance its agenda as much as possible. Far from being unprincipled, as Ian Hernon suggests, this is about advancing the Lib Dems principles as much as possible. While I would be the first to acknowledge that Nick Clegg has nursed some curious delusions over the last couple of years, there is simple no way it has escaped his attention that majority of his parliamentary party would simply not accept a coalition with the Tories unless they made some pretty phenomenal concessions. And finally, there is the simple observation that Clegg’s dislike for Cameron is visceral and personal. Partly that is because so many lazy commentators have drawn lazy comparisions between the two, which he has understandably sought to rebut. But a lot of his criticisms of Cameron hold water: it is the case that while Thatcher was at her height, Clegg was working for people like Christopher Hitchens while Cameron was sliding into a government job. Clegg has defined himself as an internationalist in terms of both his career path, his background and even his family life; Cameron is a little Englander to the core.
So, bearing all that in mind, why doesn’t Clegg just do the decent thing and admit that the only likely partner in the case of a hung parliament is Labour? I would have thought that to Labour supporters, steeped as they are in trade unionism (ha ha), that would be obvious: you don’t begin negotiations by giving up your bargaining position. If the Lib Dems were to start openly ruling out a deal with the Tories, all pressure on Brown to begin conceding ground to the more liberal wing of his party would be lost and the Tory accusation that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour would have far greater force. In essence, the Lib Dems would become pawns in a bipartisan bunfight and all hope of carving out a distinctive agenda would be lost.
But it would ignore certain other political realities. Speaking personally, it will surprise no-one to know that I would really like to see a Lib-Lab coalition and see this as a positive way of moving forward after years of drift and in the face of a Tory party which is nothing like as reconstituted as it claims to be. But I fear that my own price would be too high for the Labour Party to be prepared to pay. It would involve them shifting so much ground in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform that I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin. If I feel that way, you can bet it is a problem for Nick Clegg even more.
I think it is highly doubtful that, in the event of a hung parliament, any coalition government will be forthcoming. Neither Labour nor the Tories have shown any real interest in hinting what they would be prepared to compromise on; understandably so. Labour’s dithering and navel gazing over whether or not to support the Alternative Voting system shows them up to be appalling potential partners. Currently, it looks as if it will amount to little more than a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and we know how much Labour manifesto commitments for referendums are worth (not much). Even if they did legislate for it, it doesn’t particularly get us anywhere. While it is possible that the Lib Dems will settle for AV (indeed, several Lib Dem parliamentarians would prefer it if we did), it is more likely it will be up for negotiation. In that sense, the Labour MPs who fear that AV is the thin end of the PR-wedge are correct.
The current political system in Westminster is not designed for coalition government; indeed many elements are specifically designed to prevent them. I suspect that the most likely scenario is that, after much negotiating, either Labour or the Tories formed a minority government and a fresh election was called within two years. What is more interesting is what would happen then. If a single winner emerges then clearly it will be business as usual. But if the public votes for another hung parliament then the stakes would be considerably higher and the chances of a formal coalition will significantly increase.
There is of course the argument that a long period of political instability would panic the markets (as if they need any help). But in such a scenario, it becomes no more incumbant on the Lib Dems to be part of a coalition as it would be for Labour and the Tories to come together, as Martin Kettle has pointed out. Both Tory and Labour supporters scoff at this idea, yet no one seems capable of explaining why the Lib Dems should be more prepared to sacrifice principle in the name of pragmatism than any other party. Either a hung parliament is the sort of apocalyptic scenario foretold by people such as Ken Clarke, or it isn’t.
In short, if we do end up in a hung parliament situation, all bets are off. It is ludicrious to try framing the debate in terms of whether the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour and/or the Tories; any number of alternative scenarios might arise. Expecting the Lib Dems to painstakingly spell out their terms in advance of an election is therefore mere cant, especially when it comes (as it usually does) from people who aren’t prepared to do so themselves and do not criticise Brown and Cameron equally for not doing likewise. But it looks set to continue with the launch of Charter 2010, a new website which is dedicated to making the prospect of a hung parliament the number one election issue. Can you think of anything worse? Endless chin scratching speculation about something that has a good chance of not happening, lead by David Owen – the man who wrote the book (both figuratively and literally) on political egomania – it would redefine voter apathy.
I would politely suggest that speculation on this topic should be suspended until after the election and to instead focus on what the various parties do and don’t stand for. I know it is futile of me to do so, but I can try. But if you do insist on playing this game, then please start by telling me what you think your side should be bringing to the table instead of demanding that my party does all the heavy lifting for you. Cheers.
* I appreciate that “hung parliament” is a pejorative term and that “parliament with no single party with a workable majority” is more neutral, but it is useful shorthand.